When I was in high school, deep in Maine, I harbored an abiding belief that I had no accent. A lot of those other kids, hoo, they had friggin’ wicked accents, but not me. I figured I sounded like a Midwestern news anchor. One of my friends and I even started a Maine dictionary to catalog and define the unintelligible dialect of our classmates. “’Magin,” meant “Yes, I would agree with that statement,” while “I’mma guzzle some pounders and get right sideways” translated as “I intend to drink 16-ounce Anheuser-Busch beverages until I am intoxicated.” Implicit in our goofing was the belief that of course we didn’t talk like that.
But one day I brought a video camera to chronicle our school’s unfortunately named Senior Slave Day, when underclass students would pay to make seniors do their bidding. In the case of my friend Josh, that meant wearing a dress all day. I captured that outfit on video while Josh threatened to kick my ass. The tape went in a box and was forgotten for about 20 years until I decided to digitize it for posterity.
When I opened the .mov file on my computer, there was Josh wearing the dress, hiding his face and threatening to administer a beatdown, just as I remembered. And there was my voice, from behind the camera, declaring, “I don’t know how fast you can run in that dress.” Or at least, that’s what I thought I said at the time. What it actually sounds like now is “Ahnt newha faas yuginrhunin thaa draas.” Well, jesum crow: I had a Maine accent. And not a mild one, either.
Initially, I was embarrassed at this revelation. Some part of my self-image rests on the premise that I’ve always pronounced my R’s. And yet, here was clear evidence that I sounded about as intelligible as Fred Gwynne, aka Herman Munster, in Pet Sematary. Nice dress, Jaaash. And stay away from those old Micmac burial grounds!
Apparently I lost my accent in college, although I didn’t make any conscious effort to do so—because, of course, I didn’t think I had one in the first place. Other kids, though, underwent purposeful accent-ectomies. My friend Chris went to Boston College High School in Dorchester, and he arrived at college freshman year sounding like he could’ve been Mark Wahlberg’s cellmate on Deer Island. He quickly decided to scrub his accent. “I realized,” he said, “that when you first meet people, a Massachusetts accent doesn’t make you sound like the smartest guy in the world.” He’s a doctor now, so I think it would’ve been great if he’d kept his accent: “Nahhhse, pass me them syringes. This dude’s got a wicked friggin’ hematomer.”
The Boston accent’s had a lot of national press lately, courtesy of both Black Mass and one Michael Bergin, better known as the Boston Fish Guy. I feel a certain kinship with Bergin because a couple of years ago, out on my boat, we got an up-close visit from a great white shark. I, too, shot a video, but before posting it on YouTube I erased the audio track. Why? Because we all sounded like the Boston Fish Guy, profanely trying to suss out what we were looking at, but with an added element of total pants-wetting cowardice. I just cued up the unedited version to see if it’s as bad as I remember, and in fact it’s worse. “That’s not a whale,” I say, before my nephew Brian blurts, “Dude, that’s a shark! Holy shit! Should we get the fuck out of here?” He’s not even from Boston, but confronting a mythic leviathan in Massachusetts waters obviously prompts a certain type of reaction, including constant profanity and an overreliance on the word “dude.”
While I never went out of my way to eradicate my accent, I now sort of wish I had it back. Or at least, it’d be nice to summon it for certain occasions. A couple months ago I went to my high-school reunion, and I longed to drop back into the local dialect. But I can’t do it anymore. I’ve been gone too long. If I even tried, I’d sound like Herman Munster imitating Tim Sample. I can imitate the economy of jaw motion, the tetanus-afflicted ventriloquism of Maine diction, but the words don’t come out right. Or wrong, depending on your point of view. I’d have to spend a lot of time guzzling pounders in New Harbor before I sounded like anything other than an imposter.
In ruminating on the value of an accent, I decided to email the Fish Guy himself to ask if he’d ever thought about trying to get rid of his accent. Bergin replied, “Why would I want to do something dumb like that, man? I’m from the streets, kid. Good luck tryin’ to get that out of me.” ’Magin.